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The Global Necessity of a Riverine Force

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The Global Necessity of a Riverine Force

Matthew Noland

Throughout the world, rivers constitute a distinct environment for military operations. Rivers serve as important economic lines of communication and support massive human populations globally. As such, the riverine environment represents potential importance across the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. It follows that Combatant Commanders need forces capable of sustained operations in the riverine environment.

Historically, the Navy has responded to this requirement and provided riverine capability when needed, but only in an episodic way, constituting riverine forces for specific contingences and then disbanding them when the immediate need subsides. This approach precludes the development of the experience and expertise that Joint Force Commanders rely on from their forces, across the range of military operations (ROMO). An enduring riverine capability would better serve the Combatant Commanders because it would facilitate the cycle of theory, doctrine, and practice that facilitates expertise. The armed services should maintain a permanent riverine capability in order to provide Combatant Commanders with expertise and enduring access to the riverine operating environment.

The development of a riverine force warrants consideration from three perspectives. First, the riverine environment is geographically unique enough to have required specially trained and equipped forces to conduct operations there in the past. This need has been repeated over a span of hundreds of years, from the American Revolution through the most recent campaigns in Iraq, and across a broad spectrum of conflict intensity. Based on the uniqueness of the environment and the repeated historical need to operate within it, the Joint Force should have a riverine capability in case a Combatant Commander requires one.

Secondly, because throughout every area of responsibility, rivers represent important economic lines of communication for the hundreds of millions of people that live along their banks. These populations are growing, especially in the developing world. Without a dedicated riverine capability, the Joint Force cannot provide sustained access to these populations, and the Joint Force cedes potential influence, which could be critical for partners or potential adversaries in a future war or disaster.

Finally, if one accepts the two arguments above, then it stands to reason that the armed forces should provide not only a capability to operate in the riverine environment, but also should develop an institutional expertise along with doctrine that allows for integration with the Joint Force at the operational level. This kind of expertise can only come from a cycle of theory, doctrine, and practice – each informing the others – and can never properly develop when a capability is disbanded during peacetime and reconstituted for war.

The Lessons of History

The latest iteration of a riverine capability began in 2005, and deployed to Iraq where it performed well. Trends seem to indicate that the capability may be allowed once again to lapse into irrelevance, which would be a mistake. One indication is the verbiage of the newest Maritime Strategy, which conspicuously omits rivers as part of the maritime domain.[1] A second indication is the integration of the former Riverine Groups into the newer Coastal Riverine Groups, which combine the riverine capability with mobile waterborne security units, who provide harbor defense and some other capabilities to the Joint Force.

Although the boats used may be similar, the training and the operating environment are different. The riverine capability is now embedded in a force structure whose purpose is distinctly dissimilar. This is not a force structure argument. Any one of the armed services could provide a riverine capability to Joint Force Commanders. The Navy makes a certain sense, as it has historically (if sporadically) been the provider, and it currently maintains some capability.

Rivers and internal waterways present unique challenges to military forces. While rivers share some characteristics with the littoral and are part of the maritime domain, they also manifest different characteristics from the seas, winding their way through every imaginable type of terrain and supporting major urban centers along their banks. Maneuver warfare on rivers combines elements of sea and land maneuver, but with distinct characteristics.

Currents, shallow water and relatively rapid hydrographic change present challenges to waterborne navigation in ways that the seas do not, and the constraining banks of rivers limit options for maneuver. Further distance from the sea renders normal naval logistical support largely irrelevant, which is one reason why riverine warfare has historically displayed a distinctly “joint” character from before that term was widely used. Riverine forces must be able to work in conjunction with supporting (or supported) forces ashore.

Possessing a rich historical experience, the U.S. Navy operated riverine forces as early as the War of Independence. American riverine history encompasses a wide range of missions and tasks including riverine assault, protection of supply and communications, security, operations other than war, river crossings, and homeland defense.[2] Additional episodic usages of a riverine force have occurred in such dissimilar conflicts as the Civil War and Vietnam.  Since fleet warships are generally unsuitable for these missions, the Navy has repeatedly constructed specialized riverine fleets and forces on demand each time. For example, during the American Revolution, the Navy employed the Congress, a river galley specially constructed in 1776 to assist in denying the British advance southward down Lake Champlain.[3] The Navy’s episodic approach to riverine warfare therefore found them building riverine forces from nothing. Given this history, allowing the riverine capability to lapse during peacetime ignores historical lessons and could leave a Joint Force Commander without the ability to influence an area of responsibility.

The Global Necessity of a Riverine Force

In addition to the historically demonstrated need for a riverine capability in wartime, rivers carry an enduring strategic gravity independent of hostilities. Because of the strategic importance of the rivers of the world, and the populations they sustain, the Geographic Combatant Commanders need a capability to access the environment over the long term. The enormous populations supported by major river systems, and the internal lines of communication they represent, demand the attention of national leaders around the world and cannot be responsibly overlooked by the Joint Force.

For example, the Ganges River and its tributaries support a population of over 500 million people, well over the total population of the entire United States, and the Ganges affords a rapidly growing India with over 25 percent of its fresh water.[4] Another example, the Congo Basin spans across six of the poorest central African countries and provides for a population of over 75 million.[5] Road construction has improved landward communication somewhat, but the Congo River itself remains a critical transportation and economic throughway in the region. Finally, the Mekong Delta of Southeast Asia supports a population of over 60 million people, 17 million of them alone in Vietnam.[6]

Hundreds of major river systems span every geographic area of responsibility. These are just a handful of examples of a phenomenon that persists throughout the world. People live near rivers and have done so for thousands of years, early on for agriculture and access to drinking water, and later for economics and transportation. The population trends along rivers in the developing world are especially stark as alluded to in the examples above. As populations grow, especially in an area where infrastructure and opportunity do not develop commensurately, the environment grows more vulnerable to all of the problems associated with poor human security, namely, poverty, blight, and criminal activity – to name just a few.

To use counter-insurgency as an example, access allows for implementation of the best practices outlined by Dr. Kalev Sepp in his essay on the subject from 2005.[7] Specifically, his suggested principles of population control, counter-insurgent warfare, and securing borders against an insurgency require a riverine capability in a riverine operating environment. Without it, access to these populations is problematic at best, and if the adversary uses the river for logistics support or troop movement, or even for illicit activities, then the lack of a riverine capability represents a critical seam in the overall effort, potentially ceding an aspect of the operating environment to the enemy completely.

Ensuring Access and Presence Starts at Home

Rivers represent strategically important lines of communication and operation in regions the world over. They facilitate commerce and agriculture, but also illicit activities and maneuver space for criminals and even potential enemies. At the lower end of the ROMO, Joint Force Commanders need sustained access to the riverine environments in their areas of responsibility, specifically because they support growing populations that could provide a foothold for engagement, or a catalyst for instability. The strategic importance of the environment demonstrates the need for an enduring riverine capability that Joint Commanders can call upon when needed, and not just a rapidly constituted capability during open hostilities.

The Navy’s cycle of constitution and disbandment of riverine forces carries with it an opportunity cost in terms of doctrinal expertise. Doctrine bridges a critical gap between theory and practice, and it generally codifies how a specific force intends to operate against an enemy and integrate into a friendly force – what means to employ in war, and how to employ those means.[8] Doctrine develops as forces gain experience, not only against an adversary, but also as they integrate into friendly joint forces. Doctrine is critically important, and employing a force without it is potentially wasteful and needlessly risky.

If one accepts that Combatant Commanders may eventually need to conduct military operations in the riverine environment, then it follows that riverine forces should prepare for operations along with the rest of the joint force during peacetime. When they are constituted only to meet a wartime need, riverine forces must then develop doctrine during the unforgiving conditions of war. Employing a force without coherent doctrine is tantamount to fighting without a plan and entails significant risk, regardless of the quality of the force in question. Consider the example of the mitrailleuse, a “primitive but murderous forerunner of the machine gun,” developed by the French Army and used during the Franco-Prussian War. The weapon itself functioned exactly as designed, but out of a desire to keep the weapon secret the French Army never developed a plan for how it would be employed, and as a result it was ineffective throughout the war.[9]

As one vignette among many, riverine practitioners learned the importance of operational-level coordination with forces ashore over and again because the temporal gaps precluded passing doctrine from one generation to the next in a continuously fielded force. For instance, some of the earliest codification of joint doctrine comes from coordination between the Army and the Navy during the War of 1812.

Over the course of the war, riverine operations took on an increasingly joint nature, as the Army, Navy, and eventually the Marine Corps would work together in every theatre. These joint riverine operations included amphibious assaults and used a combination of ships and shore-based artillery to ambush British shipping. They also included the transport of soldiers over great distances via the rivers in preparation for attacks on British installations. These troop movements anteceded the tactics that the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) used during Vietnam.

Some might argue that the Navy has no need to maintain a permanent riverine capability. With near-peer maritime competitors fielding high-technology anti-access area-denial (A2AD) networks, the U.S. Navy should focus on providing Geographic Combatant Commanders with a force prepared for major maritime combat operations against capable adversaries at sea. Any efforts detracting from this focus are potentially wasteful and can take funds and time away from the development of expertise that no other component of the joint force can fulfill, namely maritime power projection, sea control, and global strike. If the joint force needs a riverine capability then the Navy can quickly constitute one, as history so aptly demonstrates.

The historical examples related in this piece are intended to demonstrate by example and reason that Geographic Combatant Commanders require a riverine capability in order to maintain access to that operating environment in the future, across the ROMO. A weapon dropped from a fighter jet or a direct action raid by special operations forces do not constitute the sort of enduring access that a regular force could provide, especially in the lower end of the ROMO. History demonstrates that the need to conduct joint military operations along rivers persists and requires specialized platforms and training.

The strategic significance of the environment suggests the potential importance of sustained access and influence given the likelihood for lower-intensity conflict in the future, or the need to conduct Phase 0 operations, especially in the developing world.[10] The idea of constituting a capability on demand and then employing it immediately does the Joint Force Commander employing it a disservice. It precludes the cycle of theory, doctrine, and practice that leads to tactical and operational expertise. It ensures friction when integrating into the rest of the joint effort.  Combatant Commanders should expect that the armed services are prepared to operate in any environment, with a force trained and prepared to integrate into the larger joint effort.

The Argument Against

Given these points, the only aspect of the counter-argument that stands any real scrutiny is cost. If cost is the primary objection to maintaining a regular riverine capability, then the Navy could minimize expenditures by creating a skilled cadre, rather than a large riverine force at anticipated wartime strength. A cadre force retains leaders during peacetime and then expands around that experienced core when needed.[11] The cadre concept would also ensure that a Combatant Commander had a well-trained core of professionals and platforms to perform some small-scale riverine operations if required. Further, a cadre riverine force would continuously develop tactics, techniques and procedures alongside the rest of the joint force. This process would preclude the need to develop new doctrine in wartime, when the cost of delays and mistakes are steep, but which the Navy has frequently paid because of decisions to disband and then reconstitute riverine forces.

Less expensive than a fully-constituted force, a cadre sacrifices readiness only in terms of personnel but not in terms of expertise. Leadership and experience cannot be generated quickly. As one commentator noted, “we cannot get a battalion commander overnight, and a ship captain cannot become competent and confident in the use of his vessel overnight. That takes years of training and experience.”[12] The same lesson applies to doctrine. A cadre force provides for continuous development and preservation of leadership skills and expertise at a fraction of the cost of a full-staffed force.

By utilizing a cadre force, the Navy could deliver a valuable riverine capability to Joint Commanders and continue to develop doctrine at a modest cost that would not cut deeply into the shipbuilding budget. The alternative of letting the riverine capability lapse completely, which has been the approach in the past, makes very little sense, since history suggests that the United States will require such capability again in the future.

In conclusion, a riverine capability is critical for a Joint Commander. History has proven how important that capability has been in previous conflicts and draws the conclusion that it is likely to prove important in the future. A standing cadre force could achieve a very high level of readiness quickly, and bring all of the benefits of proven doctrine to the Joint fight, whereas a newly constituted force could do neither effectively. Joint Commanders need a riverine capability that is prepared to operate in conjunction with the rest of the Joint Force across the ROMO, with the doctrine and platforms that allow high-level operational expertise as soon as both are needed. While this is reason enough to maintain a riverine capability, the spectrum of potential cooperation with partners and sustained peacetime access to an environment that carries clear strategic significance during peacetime is also critical.

End Notes

[1] U.S. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington: GPO, 2007), 2.

[2] Robert Benbow et al., Renewal of Navy’s Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities, (Alexandria: CNA Corporation, 2005), 11.

[3]Naval History Division, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, 8 vols. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1959 – 1981),

[4] Suzanne York, “Do Rivers Have Rights?,” Population Growth, December 4, 2013,

[5] Congo Basin, World Wildlife Fund, Last Modified 2015,

[6] “Mekong Delta: Survival for Millions,” Vital Water Graphics: An Overview of the State of the World’s Fresh and Marine Waters, 2nd ed., United Nations Environmental Programme, 2008,

[7] Dr. Kalev I. Sepp, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Military Review May/June (2005): 10.

[8] Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 13.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Robert Cassidy, “Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya: Military Strategic Culture and the Paradoxes of Asymmetric Conflict,” (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College, 2003), 2. Here Cassidy articulates what many authors like Max Boot and Thomas Hammes have argued, namely, that small-scale policing and counter-insurgency conflicts are far more likely in the future than are wars between major powers.

[11] Christopher Ordowich, Considering a Cadre Augmented Army (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), vii.

[12] Glenn Gotz and Robert Goodell Brown, Proceedings of a Colloquium on Total Force Management (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1991), 117.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander Matt Noland is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer with experience on Aegis Cruisers. He is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island, and is currently serving as an Operational Planner on the U.S. Seventh Fleet Staff in Yokosuka, Japan. He has completed deployments to the western Pacific, the Arabian Gulf, and earned recognition as the Carrier Strike Group One Tactician of the Year for 2013.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Navy, the Seventh Fleet Commander, or the Department of Defense.